Of course, the larger question is whether or not you want to play a song exactly like the original artist. In some cases, leaving things as they are maintains the original intent of the writer and the song sounds just fine as it is. Nothing wrong with that. Some songs demand a minimalist approach to be effective. Sometimes though the recipe need a few more spices. This is especially true if the chord structure already has interesting nuances beyond the straight scale-line triads. Wait a minute, Gene? What are those?
I’ve written about the importance of understanding scale-line triads before (search back through my posts for a complete explanation) but in a nutshell it comes down to this. Almost all popular music is based on the major diatonic scale. There are many other scales of course, and many are used in formats like jazz, world music, and blues. But the major diatonic scale (we know it as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) is the melodic base of much of the Western popular music heard and played for at least 100 years. Each note in that scale has a corresponding triad chord, which is built using notes in the key. The formula goes like this:
I (major), II (minor), III (minor), IV (major), V (major), VI (minor), VII (diminished, or with flatted root, major).
Adding notes to those chords or moving one of the notes in those triads up or down one half-step or a whole step adds some musical spice. Keep in mind however that our brains have been programed to know and be most comfortable with chords that are built entirely of notes in the key (those scale-line triads above). The more notes in a chord that are NOT in the key, the more disturbing – or some might say, interesting – that chord will sound in relation to the others and in relation to the major diatonic scale on which the melody is most likely based. Good songwriters almost always “resolve” one of those outside chords on the very next change with a chord that IS in the scale-line. This makes our brains go…. Ahhhh…. that’s better! In other words, embellished chords are usually used judiciously.
So here a just a couple of examples. In my opinion, the most commonly used embellishment is the suspended chord. To change a major chord into the suspended version, raise the 3rd of the chord by one-half step. This can be quite dramatic and interesting if the chord voicing you’re playing includes two thirds, usually an octave apart. An example would be first position C Major. From the lowest note to the highest, you’re playing the chord like this: Root, 3rd, 5th, Root, 3rd (C, E, G, C, E, strings 5 – 1). By raising the 3rd on the 4th string from an E to an F, you’ve developed some subtle dissonance in the chord (play just the F and the high E string together to hear it by itself). Players will often then resolve that suspended note back to the original note in the chord. Many songwriters use the suspended chord for “coloring” in almost every song they play. James Taylor is one example. Joni Mitchell also does it in the many open tunings she uses. Listen to the change at the end of just about every line of “Both Sides Now” and you will hear her do it and then immediately resolve the sound to the previous chord.
It’s worth learning the suspended version of all the Major chords you commonly use and try inserting one here and there, especially on chords that last more than two beats. A nice effect, for sure!
The next embellishment you’ll hear again and again in modern singer/songwriter tunes involves adding a note to existing chord, either Major or minor. These are the minor 9th and Major 9th . Understanding this is a bit more involved because in guitar music players sometimes refer to a 9th chord (which includes the dominant 7 note plus the 9) when they really mean a Major 9th but that one is another critter altogether. It’s not important to understand that right at this moment, although it is worth your time to delve into chord construction that involves four or more notes in a chord at some point if you’re going to truly understand chord theory.
No, we are talking about taking a straight Major or minor triad and adding the 9th to it. The 9th is the note that is one whole-step above the root. Here are some examples. In some cases for ease of fingering, depending upon the inversion or voicing of the original chord you are playing you may have to eliminate one of the notes in the triad. That is a huge can of worms that I don’t want to get into to avoid giving you a headache so for now anyway, let’s just accept that on face value. Some will sound better than others, that’s the bottom line….for now!
Two very common Major 9ths I’ve seen used lately are CMaj9 (C, E, G, D, E, strings 5 – 1) and FMaj9 (A, F, G, C, F, strings 5 – 1). Many of the younger singer/songwriters like Sarah Jarosz, Iron & Wine, Joan Shelley, others, use these and other Maj9ths frequently, in some cases more often than the straight major chord.
Minor 9ths (no 7th ) add a nice almost jazzy touch to a minor chord. Two of the most common are Em9 (E, B, E, G, B, F#, string 6 – 1) and Am9 (A, E, A, B, E, strings 5 – 1). Resolving the Em9 to Em (lowering the F# back down to the open E natural on the 1st string) and resolving the Am9 (raising the open B back to a C – the 3rd of the chord – on the 2nd string) can be quite dramatic, especially if you’re finger picking.
Those are just two ways to add some embellishments to your chords, there are dozens of other ways (single note scales between chords, chromatic tones inside chords, etc.) so the trick is to experiment. Also, study what some of your favorite artists do; you’ll often find the little things they do to chords happen again and again in various songs. This is loosely called…..style. Find your own!
Peace & good music,